Nature and Biodiversity

Plant-based diets will be essential to the planet's future, report says

The crop is seen in a barley field at a farm near Moree, an inland town in New South Wales, Australia October 27, 2020. Picture taken October 27, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Barrett - RC2O4K9TK7R2

The desire for cheap food leads to unsustainable, intensive practices. Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Barrett

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Nature and Biodiversity

  • A new report explores the role of the global food system and its role in accelerating biodiversity loss.
  • The quest for ever cheaper food prices leads many farmers to adopt unsustainable practices, the paper from UK think tank Chatham House says.
  • These practices harm biodiversity and exploit valuable resources like land and water.
  • Switching to a primarily plant-based diet could prevent the loss of thousands of wildlife species.
  • Setting aside and protecting more land for nature and farming in a more nature-friendly way are also recommended.

Switching en masse to a plant-based diet is essential to protect wildlife habitats and prevent the loss of numerous species currently facing extinction, according to a new report.

At the root of the problem is cheap food. While cut-priced comestibles may seem like a good thing, especially for low-income households, market pressure to continually reduce food production costs forces many farmers to adopt unsustainable, intensive methods that harm the land and overuse valuable resources like energy, land and water.

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The study by researchers at UK think tank Chatham House, supported by the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, notes that the race to lower prices increases food waste and degrades soils and ecosystems, making available land less productive.

As more forests and wild lands are cleared to grow crops and raise livestock, the feeding, breeding and living habitats of numerous species also disappear. Unless we change what we eat and how it is produced, the report says, the planet’s ability to support humans could come under threat.

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Gut instinct

During the past half century, conversion of natural wild land for crop production or animal pasture has been the principle cause of habitat and biodiversity loss, the report, called Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, says. Agriculture poses a threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species documented as at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But what happens next to the world’s endangered wildlife populations rests in human hands, and the rise in popularity of plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products offers hope for the future.

Rearing crops in place of animals uses land and other scarce resources more efficiently, the report notes. While raising livestock adds to greenhouse gas emissions, switching to plant-based foods would free up grazing land that could be used for other purposes. A global switch to a predominantly plant-based diet would boost dietary health, help reduce food waste and eliminate the need to keep clearing new land for grazing. Switching the global population’s diet to plant-based foods, for example, would free up 75% of the world’s cropland for other uses.

Alongside changing dietary behaviour, the report recommends protecting and setting aside more land for nature, avoiding converting it for agriculture. As well as preserving wildlife habitats from being destroyed, forests and wilded land serve as a natural carbon store absorbing pollution from the atmosphere, which helps counter the impact of the climate crisis.

Today’s high-intensity chemical-reliant farming methods must be replaced by nature-friendly practices that support biodiversity and value sustainability over ever lower farm door prices.

It’s important to note that the report is advocating a dramatic reduction in meat intake rather than replacing meat with plant-based foods. And, as the World Bank says, livestock farming supports the livelihoods and food security of almost 1.3 billion people. The Chatham House report says incentivising more diverse agriculture could lead to more resilient farmer livelihoods.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Planting the seeds of change

Despite the compelling arguments for moving to plant-heavy diets, persuading the global population to abandon its love of meat will be no easy task. Around 80 billion animals are killed for their meat each year, UN figures show.

a graph showing the number of animals slaughtered for meat across the world from 1961-2018
Many farmers are increasingly adopting unsustainable practices to create cheaper meat. Image: UN FAO/Our World in Data

In 2018, almost 70 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs and more than 300 million cattle were slaughtered to serve our love of meat.

In general, meat consumption increases as incomes rise – so the richer the country, the more meat is consumed, according to figures from the UN and the World Bank.

But for some the role of meat is beginning to change as awareness grows of the health benefits of plant-based foods and the impact of business-as-usual farming on the environment.

a chart showing how the plant-based food market has grown in value from 2017-2019
Consumer demand for plant-based food is growing. Image: The Good Food Institute

The US plant-based food market was worth more than $5 billion in 2019, up 11% on the previous year and 29% over two years. Sales of plant-based meat substitutes increased by 18% year-on-year.

Demand for plant-based foods could see annual growth of almost 12%, reaching a market value of more than $74 billion by 2027, according to a Meticulous Research forecast. While plant-based demand is increasing in most global markets, takeup in Asia-Pacific is expected to outstrip other regional markets.

Changing consumer aspirations and a growing appetite among investors to back plant-based ventures are among the drivers of global plant-based market growth, the research showed. How far, how fast and how much demand for plant-based foods increases in the coming years remains to be seen, but the future of myriad species depends on it happening quick enough.

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityFood SecurityAgriculture, Food and BeverageSustainable DevelopmentClimate Change
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